Assembly keeps habitat law on the books

It boiled down to science vs. emotion and personal property rights vs. communist encroachment by the United Nations as scores spoke about the future of salmon habitat regulation on the Kenai Peninsula. One man, who said he was a Russian immigrant, warned of eventual gulags.

Following 315 minutes of testimony made by nearly 100 citizens, the most any sitting assembly member can remember, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted 6-3 to keep the current salmon habitat protection law on the books. Largely favored revisions to the law are expected to pass a July 2 vote.

“Are we going to throw away the constitution,” asked District 1 Assemblyman Kelly Wolf, who sponsored the failed ordinance seeking total repeal of borough law governing a 50-foot buffer zone along known salmon rearing waters on all lands, including private.

Many who agreed with Wolf described the ordinance as an illegal governmental land grab. Some said it was part of the 1992 United Nations’ Agenda 21 governing sustainable development.

“We are missing the mark,” said District 5 Assemblyman Charlie Pierce.

Pierce called the 2011 law governing riparian zones across the 24,800 square miles of the borough “misguided” and said the real problem was fisherman overfishing the rivers not landowners destroying habitat on their property. He trusts landowners to do what’s right for the salmon, he said.

“My constituents don’t want you in their backyards … I don’t want you in my backyard,” Pierce said following the vote. “I hope you’re never elected for public office again,” Pierce said to seven of his fellow assembly members.

Pierce favored the repeal of the 2011 law, which many on both sides of the issue say was poorly conceived, but agreed that habitat protection of some sort must occur. Shortly before the meeting began he said oil and gas “pay the bills in Alaska, not salmon or tourists.”

With Ordinance 2011-12 remaining on the books, the assembly is expected to vote on Ordinance 2013-18, which seeks to amend 2011-12 to be less overbearing on landowners and more specific in its habitat protections, at the assembly’s July 2 meeting.

The new ordinance, which also drew the ire of many landowners, is the result of a nine-month-long task force effort which created the proposed amendments to 2011-12 that are said to clear up overreaching issues and removed more than 200 waters from governance due to lack of evidence they are salmon rearing zones.

Citing the “future” as part the guidance behind his vote to keep habitat protection, District 9 Assemblyman Mako Haggerty said, “I dislike regulation (but) I value salmon.”

So polarized were the throngs in attendance, that one side spoke first and then the other. Assembly President Linda Murphy allowed the public to speak about both ordinances as intermingled. In the end, more spoke for proactive action than those who described it as a government land grab.  

During the final week prior to the hearing, 120 written statements arrived at assembly chambers. According to Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship, 15 favored removing the law and 115 favored the law with revisions now due for an assembly vote July 2.

A Soldotna police officer was present because of the sizable crowd. Before official testimony began a few of those opposing regulated riparian zones on personal property made thinly veiled threats of recall petitions if the assembly failed to repeal all of the regulation.

Michelle Hartline was the first to fire saying that the assembly was full of conflict and personal agendas. “No matter what happens, this fat lady has not begun to sing,” she said to a room full of applause only extinguished by Murphy’s chiding that outbursts from any side would not be tolerated.

“You need to hear us, not just listen,” said George Pierce of Kasilof, after he reminded the assembly that elections were coming.

Judy Dennison of Ninilchik said, “You may not be aware of Agenda 21, but it is aware of you.”

Those favoring habitat protections included landowners, commercial and sport fisherman and fisheries biologists who told tales of the collapsed salmon runs that once fed Europe, to the East Coast and then the West Coast. Citing science and history, those runs, they said, where destroyed on individual action at a time.

“It’s our chance to do the right thing and make sure our salmon are protected,” said Sandy Crawford. “The Pacific Northwest was once full of salmon and they are now gone.”

Respecting landowners are concerned about personal rights, Armey Thompson, executive director of Alaska Salmon Alliance encourage all to step back and look at 2013-18, which revises the current protections law. The 25-page document is not hastily done, it contains a lot of thought, he said.

Warning of creeping urbanization and industrialization, Thompson said the Kenai Peninsula is the one of the last bastions of wild salmon stocks.

Brendan Hardeman said regulating salmon-rearing waters and the 50-foot buffer zones on land owned privately is a civic responsibility supporting a community resource.

“It’s not communism,” he said. “It’s common sense.”

Greg Skinner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.